Air Force restarts ‘eco tours’ at Tokyo recreation area as on-base COVID-19 cases wane
TAMA HILLS RECREATION AREA, Japan — Two dozen Japanese visitors hiked across the U.S. military’s sprawling recreation area in western Tokyo on Wednesday while learning about its history and the plants and animals that live there.
The “eco tour” was the first organized in more than a year by the 374th Airlift Wing at nearby Yokota Air Base. Access to U.S. facilities in Japan was limited last spring as coronavirus cases spiked among service members; however, restrictions have eased in recent months with more people in the military community getting vaccinated.
Tour leader Yoshitaka Yamaguchi, 69, a former environmental engineer at Yokota, led visitors on the trek through some of the recreation area’s 483 acres.
The tours, which began in 2006 and happen only periodically, are a way for locals to see what’s behind the barbed wire fence surrounding Tama Hills, Yamaguchi said.
“Usually, they’re not allowed to come in, but over the fence they expect there are nice natural resources,” he said, during a break in the hike. “They’re also interested in the history.”
Many locals already know about the base’s past as a Japanese munition facility and Cold War-era bomb storage site.
Today, Tama Hills operates as a recreation area for U.S. troops and their families stationed in and around the Japanese capital. It includes an 18-hole golf course, lodging, horseback riding, sports fields, mountain bike trails and camping areas.
The Japanese visitors observed small fish living in a pond near the base’s front gate and some ancient stone steps. Yamaguchi held up a World War II-era photograph of a Japanese soldier standing at the top of the steps, which, at the time, were topped with a traditional Japanese torii gate and led to a Shinto shrine.
The visitors saw an old Japanese bathhouse and dining facility and went inside wartime bunkers.
“People can feel the history,” Yamaguchi said.
World War II relics are often neglected by local cities in Japan because they feel uncomfortable about them, according to 374th Civil Engineer Squadron environmental engineer Mutsuki Kitajima, 29, who also spoke to the visitors during the tour.
“We can still maintain these historical resources in good shape,” he said.
One visitor, Hisao Yokota, 74, of Inagi City, said he’d played golf at Tama Hills but that the tour was his first time to see the recreation area, which he knew as a munitions site in his youth. He was particularly interested in the construction of old drains in the area.
The tours are a chance for the Air Force to show that it is properly maintaining the ecology and history of its facilities, Kitajima said.
“We can make a good understanding between the local community and Yokota Air Base,” he said.
Yamaguchi pointed out rare moss growing on a wall and a place where foxes prowl. He told the visitors about the tanuki, or raccoon dogs, that inhabit the forest and the rare goshawks that nest there.
Officially, there are 38 goshawks in the recreation area, including two fledglings.
The goshawks didn’t make an appearance during Wednesday’s tour, but Yamaguchi showed the visitors photos of the birds and pointed out the difference in plumage between juveniles and adults.
The preservation of the endangered birds is part of an environmental protection program that was recently judged the best on U.S. military bases overseas, Heyward Singleton, 47, Yokota’s Installation Management Flight chief, said in a May 17 interview.